When Astrology and Astronomy were One

One of the areas I did not delve deeply into for the Dark Apostle books was that of astrology. Certainly much of the educated medicine of the 14th century (and for a long time before and after) began with knowing the astrological sign of the patient, and taking into account the dominant astrological characteristics of the season before determining the method of treatment.  My protagonist, Elisha, focused more on the physical evidence than on any celestial influence.

An astronomer's chair at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England

An astronomer’s chair at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England

Nowadays, most people treat astrology as an amusing diversion (as the warning on my newspaper’s astrology column points out), although nearly everyone you ask will likely readily know their astrological sign and may even have some belief that this affects their personality in the same way that a red-haired friend of mine claims her hair color as an excuse for her temper. It happens to be the month of my birth, and so more people than usual are commenting on my presumed nature based on that single fact.

On a scientific level, I may be more ready to believe in some genetic basis for a link between hair color and temperament (which would still account for only part of how that temperament is expressed in any given individual) than in a link between the accidental timing of my birth and a pattern that some ancient observer noticed in the sky. Many of my friends will also, if having a bad day, off-handedly remark that Mercury has gone retrograde, an astronomical phenomenon that occurs about three times a year, given the relative disparity between the length of the year for Mercury, and our own. So these otherwise intelligent and responsible people, even today, maintain some sense that their lives are influenced by distant patterns in the heavens.

This belief in astrology is long-standing and wide-spread, with peoples around the world all mythologizing some link between the stars and the people beneath them. However, the patterns they thought worthy of note vary widely, even in what type of pattern might be considered important. The constellations that seem obvious to Westerners are broken up into parts of other asterisms in other cultures, and the ancient Peruvians relied not on the stars to envision their patterns, but on the black areas between them.

When you are out at night, perhaps in the wilderness far from artificial lights, its easy to see why mankind so often finds connection to the stars. They sweep grandly overhead, inspiring poetry, art and awe. If you watch for many months, you identify patterns to the movements, the same stars returning over and over, with other bright “wandering stars” moving against that backdrop. In a nomadic culture, the return to a summer or winter camp might well be linked to the reappearance of a pattern in the stars, a pattern that culture names and tells stories about, solidifying the connection between the skies and ourselves.

So the first detailed observations of the sky have little to do with science and much more to do with a sense of influence and power the stars wield over our little lives. Signs in the sky like shooting stars or comets were viewed as portents sent by gods above whose intention must be interpreted through observation. It’s only been in the last couple of centuries that the idea of celestial observation uncoupled from the sense that the stars themselves influenced our destiny as individuals.

In China, innovators developed elaborate clocks and astronomical devices and methods in order to track detailed information about the birth of imperial children to interpret the astrological significance of the moment.

Nowadays, we send out ever more elaborate devices to study the stars and planets in our solar system and beyond. We remain in awe of the stars not because they might govern us, but because they are, in themselves, awesome: beautiful collisions of gasses and elements. We study them because they still fulfill a need within ourselves—a need to understand and interpret, to reach beyond and seek a greater meaning. In studying the stars, we might come to understand more of our own star and planet, how we began and where we are going. We are no longer subject to the stars, but partners with them on our journey through the universe.

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Technology in Medieval Fantasy, thanks to Steampunk

I have just returned from the World Fantasy Convention, held this year in Arlington, VA, where I got to hang out with many other authors and readers, sharing our knowledge and celebrating the realm of fantasy writing. One of my highlights was participating in a panel about the use of technology in Medieval Fantasy, along with Beneath Ceaseless Skies editor Scott H. Andrews, and medieval scholar Michelle Markey Butler.

an early English mechanical clock

an early English mechanical clock

When I participate on panels, I usually start out with some notes about my ideas or references for the topic, to make sure I present the most useful and engaging information for discussion. We discussed the roles that technology plays in the real world, noting the absence of technology from many prior works of fantasy, and finding an increasing number of recent publications that reference historical technology. It looked, to the panel, as if the use of technology in medieval fantasy has been increasing, and it occurred to me that this trend might owe a lot to the Steampunk movement.

I know that, while there are many who revel in the gears and goggles that are emblematic of Steampunk, many others bemoan its popularity or worry about its embrace of a historical period known for the colonization of the lands of others. However, I suspect that the explosion of Steampunk, and in particular its exuberant use of mechanical innovations, however unlikely they might be, have liberated authors of other sorts of fantasy to employ similar innovations in their own work.

Until recently, the extrapolation and use of technology has been the purview of science fiction, while fantasy focused on building worlds around imagined magics, creatures and countries. When technology did appear, it often did so in opposition to these elements, so the industrialization of the Shire leads to degradation at the end of The Lord of the Rings, and the six-fingered man uses a machine to suck the life from the Man in Black in The Princess Bride.

But historically speaking, technology is how people work to make their lives better, whether that is the back-and-forth development of weapons and defenses, or the labor-saving innovations of water and wind mills, spinning wheels and paper-making. Even in a world of elves, wizards or dragons, people need clothes to wear, grains to eat, and surfaces to write on, yet most fantasy novels incorporate the products of technology without any sense of the means of production or development required to get there. (I started this blog by railing against the presence of books in fantasy novels, and this is one reason why).

Steampunk, on the other hand, puts the technology right out front. It not only uses historical background technology, it extrapolates new things based on the history, and I think it has liberated the idea of technology and technological advancement from the pages of science fiction and returned it to its rightful place, at the heart of human need. Authors began poking around the edges, thinking about the technologies between the age of steam, and the current age, and they also began looking back.

Those of us writing historical fantasy and fantasies that imitate historical eras, might choose to foreground the technology appropriate to our own period of time, or simply to suffuse our worlds with the means of production and material culture that technology allows—but I, for one, am excited to see where the Steampunk explorers might lead.

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Book Promotion: Nobody Cares about your Crazy Names (sorry!)

Once again, I have had the opportunity to read someone’s blurb for their fantasy novel.  You see these things all over the place–on advertising materials at conventions, on the back covers of books, on blogs or in emails asking you to support the author.  All too often I’m thinking, “Jeez, man, I’d love to support you–but first you gotta write some copy worth selling!”

If you are an author, whether you are writing your query letter to send to agents, or writing the copy that goes on websites to promote your indie-published book, you must remember that that blurb is the first writing sample your audience is likely to read.  That blurb must be freakin’ brilliant–it might even be the most important thing you’ll ever write related to that book, including the book itself.

I am a fantasy writer. I am a fantasy reader. And one of the first things that many people who avoid fantasy will tell you is that they don’t like a lot of unpronounceable names.  Here’s a little secret:  even readers who love fantasy can get turned off fast by the same issue.

During the course of the first few chapters, the typical fantasy novel will introduce a series of names for people, places, countries, various novae (like magical concepts or local plants and animals).  For the fantasy junkie, that’s cool–because those unusual names are introduced in context–they relate to other things on the page, other elements of the story, and begin to build the sense of other-worldliness we enjoy.  The name isn’t just a bit of decoration, it is a handle for a person, place or thing with other individual attributes which find a place in the mind of the reader.

This is not the case with the blurb for a fantasy novel.  In a blurb, you have one paragraph, a few sentences, to get the reader’s attention and convince him or her to read the book.  Again, it doesn’t matter if that reader is just a person looking for their next book, or an agent looking for their next best-selling author–the impact is the same:  you need to inspire the reader to want to read more.  And a series of strange names is highly unlikely to do so.

Here’s an off-the-cuff example:

Ga’thorna of Trigyrra travels to the Phonerevon Mountains to study the mystic skill of Pacheira which will allow her to control the weather, but when Trigyrra comes under attack by the Acherides with their malevolent hipponychus, Ga’thorna must hurry home to defend Trigyrra against the threat that might change Malfsion forever.

In all seriousness, ANY series of names is unlikely to inspire the reader.  Because those names (whether they are Ga’thorna of Trigyrra, or Jennifer Stone) don’t relate to anything.  The names themselves are meaningless without the context of the book.  There is no reason for the reader to care about the handles when they have not been introduced to the thing the handle refers to.  Fantasy novels are merely the most extreme example of the problem–even my romance-writing friends have the tendency to throw a bunch of names into a query, wasting most of their precious blurb-space.

Instead, focus on the protagonist and the conflict that he or she faces.  Suggest the setting (which may require a place-name, but might be more effective with a more evocative handle) and move on.  You may also need to suggest the antagonist or the love-interest, but that character probably doesn’t need a name.  Instead of filling up your blurb with handles–much less unpronounceable ones–fill it up with phrases that capture the essence of the place, time, problem, or magic. . . Show what will make your book worth reading, and your characters worth caring about, by displaying the heart of the story, not by referring to things your reader does not yet understand.

Here’s the blurb above, substituting specific phrases or images for most of the names:

A gifted young mage, Ga’thorna, leaves her island home for a distant monastery in the mountains to study weather-magic, but when the island comes under attack by an ancient enemy with an army of flesh-eating seahorses, Ga’thorna hurries to defend her home against a threat that might change the world forever.

Sure, “hipponychus” is a cool word, and it evokes the concept I have in mind, but compared with “an army of flesh-eating seahorses,” it says nothing to the reader. Removing the strange words has also encouraged streamlining the prose so that the new blurb reads much better (and might even be something I could remember if I needed an elevator pitch for this imagined book).

When they have the chance to explore your world and meet your characters in the context of the novel, readers are happy to learn their names, but when you need to catch someone’s attention and do it fast–leave the names in the book and deliver the impact of your story instead.

What are some of your pet-peeves about the marketing of fantasy?




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The Black Death/ Ebola Smackdown

Right now, the news is full of Ebola.  Everyone–especially politicians–is in a tizzy about this dread disease, which is infecting and killing thousands in a certain area of Africa.  Should we ban air travel to West Africa?  Has the CDC done enough to protect American citizens?  How afraid should we be? do we keep kids home from school when we hear a rumor that somebody has a fever and knows somebody who might have once been to Africa?

Er.  Okay, maybe nobody’s asking that question, although a number of parents did keep kids home from school because of rumors that someone got off an airplane with a fever.  Maybe I’m the only one this happens to, but I often catch a local cold virus while traveling, and I have yet to be stopped at the airport. . .  So let’s return to the question, how afraid should we be?

How about a look at the real face of disease vectors in America, and a reminder of a threat which is still among us:

A marmot prepares for quarantine. . . er, for winter.

A marmot prepares for quarantine. . . er, for winter.

This is a marmot. It happens to be a Yellow-bellied Marmot in Rocky Mountain National Park.  In Mongolia, the bubonic plague is endemic to the local marmots.  You remember the Bubonic Plague,  AKA, the Great Mortality, AKA, the Black Death?  Bubonic Plague was likely carried on fleas spreading from the area of central Asia, and transported by rats all over Europe, both rats and fleas being pretty ubiquitous in earlier times (and still in many places).  Fleas likely also traveled in blankets, cloth and clothing, also pretty common.

When the fleas bit people, people became infected. Lots of fleas.  Lots of infections.  30 to 50% die-offs in areas where the plague ran rampant in the 14th century, for example.  You can also get it by exposure to bodily fluids of the infected. About 50% of people who contracted the plague died from it.  Later, the plague becomes Pneumonic:  it adapts to be spread by coughing or sneezing, and has a higher death rate, say, 75% (there is also a septicemic variety which killed about 90%).  Remember, all of the historical percentages are based on either eyewitness accounts (likely exaggerated), death roll analysis, or archaeological evidence, so they are a bit fuzzy, and may be lower or higher.

The Black Death lead to widespread panic, lots of praying, lots of anger and suspicion against the wrong people as many people looked for someone else to blame.  It also lead to the use of quarantine (from an Italian word, meaning separating possible infectious individuals for 40 days), which was often effective.  Eventually, the disease died out on its own–returned periodically, and died back again due, at first, to environmental factors (cold winters), and later to an increased understanding of disease vectors coupled with more effective prevention and treatment.

Okay, E. C., but that’s history.  Except in the areas where the plague remains endemic. Plague is endemic (meaning, it’s already present) in many rodent populations in the Southwest–like marmots, prairie dogs, and those adorable ground squirrels people are always feeding when they visit the western National Parks.   According to the CDC, we get an average of 7 cases per year in America. That’s more than the current number of confirmed Ebola cases in the States.    Thankfully, we’ve gotten the death rate down to around 11% with prompt treatment.  The World Health Organization says about 4000 cases of the plague are reported every year, though they suspect this number should be higher due to under-reporting in many areas.

Here’s a brief rundown on Ebola:  it has an incubation period of 21 days (which is much longer than the 2-6 days of Bubonic plague–so that’s kinda scary, but you have to be symptomatic to spread the disease), you must have contact with bodily fluids to become infected (whether from an individual, or from contaminated objects), and in Africa, it has a current death rate of about 50%, but outbreaks in the past have ranged from 25% to as much as 90%.

Yep, that’s scary–especially if you live in West Africa or work directly with patients. However, if you look at the trend over time you find that, yes, more people are being infected, but a smaller percentage of them are dying.  Just as with the death rate from the Bubonic Plague going from 50% or so, down to 11%, as we develop counter measures against the spread of the disease, better monitoring and better treatments, the disease becomes more survivable.  We still do not have a vaccine for the plague. Thousands of people live and visit areas where the plague is endemic, and avoid getting sick–and almost none of them even think about the potential for sickness.

It seems to me that, rather than spend time, money and human attention worrying about Ebola becoming an epidemic in America, we should spend some proportion of that on developing and offering effective prevention and treatment for people who *are* likely to be exposed to the disease–those in Africa and the compassionate people who work with them. That requires the travel of health professionals and scientists to study and treat the disease. It may require education and the encouragement of openness about how to handle the dead, and what foods are safe to eat because the first cases likely came from consuming bush meat, and were transmitted by customs surrounding the care of the dead.  Yes, it also requires keeping the uninfected safe, for instance, reasonable precautions about travel from affected areas, and the increased protocols introduced recently by the CDC for healthcare professionals.

Hand-wringing? Paranoia and accusations?  Stigmatization of the families of the affected after they have passed quarantine?  That’s what we don’t need. Instead of harnessing a manufactured hysteria to produce political gains, let’s harness our energy to send Ebola back into the woods and encourage it to stay there.


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Climbing back on the Bandwagon

In the last couple of months, I have sadly fallen off of several bandwagons:  the blogging bandwagon, the exercise bandwagon, the music practice bandwagon, lately the vegetarian diet bandwagon.  I say “sadly” because these are all things I would have liked to maintain–and because it is easier to maintain a habit than to begin one.

I have also gotten back on, possibly, the most important bandwagon of all (for me, anyhow) which is writing every day. I’ve been writing 3000 to 5000 words every weekday on my new WIP, Drakemaster (for those of you keeping track, this is my Chinese epic historical fantasy).  I was incredibly busy over the summer, between leading adventure camps and attending conventions–all very worthwhile and enjoyable things–so I didn’t get any writing done.  Now, I did not go from 0 to 5000 words the next day, I had to ramp back up to it with a few hundred, then a thousand, then two thousand (I always picture a freight train picking up speed)  I am very happy to be riding this particular bandwagon again, but still thinking about those other ones that have been left behind.

How to get back up?  The key is persistence. It’s all too easy to fall off–or, more often, to be knocked off any given habit you’re trying to maintain. You want to eat a particular way, then you get invited to a wedding, and, well, you can’t just ignore wedding cake, right?  you want to exercise daily or even every-other-day, then you get sick or injured, and you just can’t make it for a few days.  Or, worst of all, Life Happens.  Kids, family, work obligations, blackouts, car troubles–the list of reasons to stop is pretty much endless.

But you’ve gotta get back up again.  You will not reach your goals (whether fitness, career, financial or creative) without regular practice, without building and maintaining the habit of getting it done.  Someday, you just begin again.  You screw up your courage, renew your gym membership or humble yourself before your writing workshop and make a new commitment.  Yep, it’s hard to do this if you’ve let things slide.  You’re probably going to do fewer reps on the Nautilus this time around. You’re going to start with fewer words on your daily count. You’re going to be tempted by the goodies when you stop off at your favorite bookstore that happens to have a cafe. . .

Here is the thing to remember:  Life is a series of choices.  All the time, every time.  Sometimes, you don’t have the leeway to make a different choice:  you have to try your sister’s cassarole, even if it blows your diet.  Next time the choice returns to you, pick the right one.  Next time you can choose to watch tv or write–choose to write. Next time you can choose between a long lunch break, and taking a walk–choose the walk.

It’s hard to keep making the right choice–and it’s easy to think, if you’ve made the wrong choice a few times in a row, that it’s not worth the struggle to get going again.  How will you feel if you never reach your goals?  If you’re willing to just give up, go for it. If you’re going to kick yourself later, then take a step now.  Even a tiny one. Tomorrow, make a bigger one, the day after, a bigger one yet–

The more often you make the best choice, the more you can maintain those habits that will get you moving the right direction, and you’ll find yourself back on the bandwagon in no time.  For some more specific advice and ideas about self-motivating, check out the work of Luc Reid, author and instigator of The Willpower engine (and the Willpower Engine for Writers free e-book–cheap at twice the price).

I can’t guarantee that I’ll stay on the blogging bandwagon, but I can guarantee that, next time I fall off, I’ll make the choice to get back on.   See you next week!

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Review: Home for the Holidays, discovering voice

Home for the Holidays
Home for the Holidays by Randee Dawn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had the pleasure of meeting the author at a local convention last year some time, and actually won this book when I attended her reading. I highly recommend that others should go out and buy it, not least to encourage the author to write lots more!

Voice is one of the tricky bits of being a writer. Editors and agents will tell you that they look for an author with a strong “voice” and new writers will scratch their heads and try to figure out what that means and where to get one.

I am not one of those who reads to experience the flowery and self-congratulating prose that is often presented as an example of a strong voice for an author. I prefer and more subtle and vigorous approach that grows, not from the author’s desire to impress an English teach who’s probably been dead for decades, but from the author’s attempt to present a clear and striking picture of the story world that is so deeply embedded in the consciousness of character that you can’t remove the narrator’s voice without the work falling to bits.

Randee Dawn is such a writer. In each of these stories, she creates such a strong sense of the character behind the narrative that the reader must pull out at the end and be startled to find that yes, the author of that nasty little Christmas fable which provides the title, and the elegant mannered “The Folly of Miss Arbuthnot” is, in fact, the same person.

Dawn has the ability to sink into each of these works through their characters and reveal them from the inside out. That sort of confidence and investment creates a voice for the author that makes me want more. The work reminds me of Peter S. Beagle, who can so easily assume the identity of an old wine-sot sailor, then slide into the mind of a teenage Chicana. How? Teach me this magic!

If the fingerprint of the author is here on the prose, it is to point the reader in a new direction. If the author’s voice is whispering, it is to lull you into the dream that is a story.

More work by Randee Dawn is sincerely to be hoped for–hers is a voice I could listen to for a very long time.

View all my reviews

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Of Druids and Motorcycles

Today is the autumn equinox, when day and night are equal in length, at one time considered an event worthy of note.  Certain groups still observe the occasion, notably, the druids of England.  Their preferred venue is, of course, the grand-daddy of prehistoric observatories, Stonehenge.

Stonehenge, seen last Autumn.

Stonehenge, seen last Autumn.

These groups refer to themselves as Druids, and I did not realize until I read the Wall Street Journal’s coverage yesterday of a recent controversy (about which, more later) how many druid groups are active in England right now. The article mentions two (The Loyal Arthurian Warband Order, and the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids) along with an Archdruid of Stonehenge and Britain, and the Council of British Druid Orders. which lists sixteen member groups, and references a couple of others. These groups are seeking to reclaim a heritage of nature-based worship disrupted almost two millennia ago by the Roman invasion of England.

In general, so long as that worship does not impede the rights of others, I think people should be allowed to pursue whatever religion feels nearest their soul (or whatever conception thereof they might hold). I have a number of friends who are pagans of various ilks, but the one proclaimed druid I met locally did not leave a very positive impression as a spiritual person. Still, I was a bit surprised to find druid organizations proliferating to such a great degree. Perhaps the call to protect the environment in general has encouraged this growth, along with a feeling of connection to the land.

Most of the evidence we have for a history of druidism and the practices that might have been used comes from the Romans themselves, who were hardly an objective source (rather like citing inquisitorial documents to research the beliefs and practices of witches). During the 18th and 19th century, there was a vogue for revivals of old-time religion, and much of what is claimed on behalf of many neo-pagan religions is actually born from that enthusiasm, rather than from an earlier history of belief.

The other source we have, is, of course, the archaeological record. As you know, I’m very keen on material culture: the physical evidence of what people make and do, where they go, how they use what they had and the places they lived. Archaeologists are adding to our understanding of prehistoric Britain all the time. Both the English Heritage magazine and Smithsonian magazine included coverage this month of the recent ground-penetrating radar survey of the Stonehenge landscape.

Which brings me to the controversy mentioned earlier. It seems that Arthur Pendragon (yes, that’s his legal name) the leader of the Loyal Arthurian Warband, is aasserting the historical custom of his group to park their transportation on a dirt track near the Stonehenge circle itself when they visit or perform rituals there. In particular, Pendragon’s motorcyle. English Heritage has spent a good deal of time and money in the last few years building a new visitor’ center and car park, and getting a highway moved to better preserve the landscape, and the experience of the landscape for visitors. Pendragon accuses them of wanting the druids to use the carpark mainly so that English Heritage can get their five bob parking fee.

But if you look at the history of use, the archaeological evidence tells us that people using the circle did, in fact, park themselves (their houses and workshops) at a distance from the circle and walk there. So an argument can certainly be made that the present-day druids be willing to do the same thing. After all, it’s about the sacred landscape, right? The walk to the circle was likely part of the ritual for many years and some types of observances. But probably not for everything. Sometimes, in contemporary religious observance, you just want to pay a quick call and be on about your day. Still, as a non-religious visitor to Stonehenge, I certainly applaud the effort to restore the site to a more prehistoric impression, and allowing motorcycle parking adjacent to the circle would spoil it.

I propose that, just like many churches have special parking areas set aside for the celebrants, English Heritage should consider setting aside a few parking places for druids (possibly via a placard system, or simply by confirming plate numbers of registered celebrants) who would not have to pay the fee to visit their sacred space.

English Heritage makes money, sure. And what they do with that money is attempt to preserve the history of the nation for future generations, including the generations of druids that will hopefully follow upon this one. It seems to me that the preservation of the Stonehenge landscape is one goal that all of those groups could agree on.

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